Sunday, December 18, 2016

Arsenal Allergic to Title Charge Again, Lose 2-1 to City

--> Arsenal lost from a 1-0 lead for the second time this week, collapsing at the Etihad 2-1 today to put a huge dent in their title challenge, particularly given the stellar form of Chelsea, who won their 11th game on the bounce Saturday (by the same 1-0 score Arsenal might well have won their last two). It was the first victory for City in their last seven matches against Arsenal, with the latter Arsenal winning two and drawing the other three. For City, it eased some of the pressure on their slightly beleaguered manager while it might well have ended Arsenal’s title challenge even before the halfway point of the season. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Defensive Woes Bubbling Up: Arsenal are undefeated when Mustafi starts at centreback (13-6-0), but have been substantially less stable when he is off the pitch (4-3-2). There was the 4-3 loss to Liverpool on opening day, the 2-0 loss to Southampton in the League Cup and then the two 2-1 losses this week. Gabriel is just not the same quality of defender and his lack of positional acuity and pace seems to affect all those around him. He cannot take all the blame, though, as City were able to get behind the entire defense with far too much ease far too often. They almost equalized less than five minutes after the opener, had a couple other chances before the half, scored two in the second half and could have had a couple more but for three excellent Petr Cech saves. After taking the lead early, Arsenal pressed high and kept City on the back foot for a nice spell, but the linkup play was not up to their usual standard and then they seemed to completely lose their cool after the equalizer.

Arsenal have seven clean sheets this season, but only four in the league, with two coming in 0-0 draws (at Leicester and against Boro). However, the last time they held a team scoreless was that Boro game, with them shipping at least a goal in eight straight games and, obviously, two in the last two. In this game, it was a lack of poise on the ball, an inability to close players down in and around the box, a failure to clear their lines and getting caught with a high line for both goals. The first came after Arsenal gave the ball up twice, and Sane beat Gabriel on a lofted ball over the top, easily finishing past Cech. The second came when Monreal was unable to beat Sterling to an excellent long cross field pass from De Bruyne and then three Arsenal defenders couldn’t stop his run into the box and then shot. There are serious questions about a passive offsides from Silva, who appeared to be right in front of Cech on the shot, but most of the pundits believe it shouldn't have been called.

Arsenal have to figure out a way to shore up their defense if they are to have any chance to get back into the title race, assuming Chelsea slip up going forward, and might need to turn to the lumbering Mertesacker if Gabriel continues to perform at this level. They certainly have a winnable slate of six fixtures before a vital rematch with Chelsea, but will need to play better on both sides of the ball if they are to stay close in the interim.

2. Offense is Stuttering as Well: Alexis Sanchez added an assist early on, with a perfect through ball to Walcott, who took two touches and then finished smartly, sending Claudio Bravo the wrong way. That makes it 28 goals Sanchez has scored or created in his last 28 games. But then Arsenal seemed to lose their momentum. They dominated the midfield for the next 20 minutes, but neglected to register another shot on goal, failing to turn possession and turnovers into clear-cut chances. In fact, their only shot on goal the entire game was that early Walcott goal; a poor time for an off day when serious questions have been raised about Claudio Bravo’s poise in goal. Yet they were still able to get to halftime with the lead and had every opportunity for a huge win to draw back within six points of Chelsea. Instead, they played one of their worst halves of football all season, unable to deal with City’s high press and slick passing. Ozil was largely anonymous for the entire match, Sanchez seemed to slow down after an ankle knock late in the first half and the supporting cast sent one askew pass after another.

Coquelin and Xhaka were particularly susceptible to the second-half City press, sending hopeful long balls, askew clearances or missing open men in front of them, while giving up the ball in dangerous positions over and over again. The free-flowing football Arsenal are so famous for seemed to abandon them and the introduction of Ox (who only lasted a short spell before a hamstring problem forced Wenger to replace him with Elneny) and Giroud did little to stop the rot.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, the continued absence of Cazorla is really hurting the Gunner’s transition from defense to attack, and while he might be back in a month or so, it might be too late. Iwobi, too, has hurt the side at times with his indecision and poor passing in key moments of the game. It was telling that he finished beautifully for a disallowed goal, having already heard the whistle go for offsides, but missed the open man on at least three counters. Walcott had a couple of good chances after his goal, but skyed two of them and sent a lofted cross a little too far for Giroud late on.

What was lacking in this game, at its core, though, was the belief and drive to keep the three points, just as it was on Tuesday. Arsenal made the mistake of sitting back for much of the game and seemed unsure of themselves on the ball, an odd problem for a side managed by Wenger. But we have seen this collapse so many times before over the past ten years. It is as if the 2006 Champions League final, when they lost a 1-0 lead to Barcelona in the second half, has marked a shift in the side, their mettle and steel replaced by shiftlessness and collapses in big games. They have shown some of that old spirit this season, winning points and games when trailing, but besides a three-game spell when they scored 10 goals against Bournemouth, West Ham and Stoke, Arsenal have been unable to score more than a goal in four of their last seven. In those games, they ceded a 1-0 lead to Tottenham, had to score late to equalize against a United side that largely dominated them and then lost leads against struggling Everton and City. A run of 18 points in their next six might be their only chance to get back in the title chase, with even the Top 4 now in doubt as both United and Tottenham are breathing down their necks.

3. A Needed Three Points for City: City were down 1-0 after only five minutes and their shambolic defending for the first half of the first half seemed like it should have left them even further behind. But they settled as the first half wore on, had two excellent chances to equalize and then dominated the second half with a combination of excellent passing and, in the style of Guardiola’s best Barca side, winning the ball back whenever they lost it. They could easily have won this game 3 or 4-1 and were rampant on the offensive end, just missing the finishing touch to obliterate an Arsenal side that complete lost their bearings under the constant onslaught. Even without Aguero, City’s passing was extraordinary and their movement around the box created chance after chance. Most impressive, however, was the pressing that seemed to disrupt not only Arsenal’s ability to counter but their overall mentality. In the end, they bossed 61 percent of possession against an Arsenal side that seemed to decide they would rather hold on to what they had than go for the throat of a shaky City defense early. They also outshot the Gunners 14 to 6 (with 5 on target to Arsenal’s measly 1).

This should do a lot to quiet the critics and City now have what should be a cake walk against Hull before a key showdown at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. They will not face Chelsea until April 5, four days after the return fixture with Arsenal, and could well be on to the quarterfinals of the Champions League by then. Things are finally looking up for Guardiola’s side, though they will need Chelsea to slip up if they are to get back to the summit anytime soon. The same old questions regarding Arsenal appear to have surfaced yet again, right on the heels of the announcement they face another daunting Round of 16 Champions League draw.

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